Fred Willard, the comic actor known for his genial but dunderheaded characters, has died. He was 86.
Willard died Friday night at his range in l. a. of natural causes. Willard’s daughter, Hope Mulbarger, said the actor died “very peacefully.”
“He was still moving, working, and making us laugh until the very end. We loved him so considerably,” Mulbarger said. Willard features a role within the upcoming Netflix comedy series “Space Force” opposite Steve Carell.
Fred Willard was married for 50 years to Mary Willard, a playwright, and collaborator together with her husband. She died in 2018 at the age of 71.
After getting his start in improv comedy with Second City, Fred Willard was an astonishingly ubiquitous presence especially on TV but also in movies for many years, nearly always in small but memorable roles.
The NY Times said in 2008: “He has become the king of the deadpan cameo, the guy who makes a one-shot appearance as an office manager or furniture salesman and finishes up stealing the scene.”
Fred Willard was nominated fourfold for Emmy Awards, three of them (in 2003, 2004 and 2005) for enjoying Hank on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and therefore the fourth in 2010 for his recurring role as Frank Dunphy, the daddy of Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy, on “Modern Family.” Willard’s character received a loving sendoff during “Modern Family’s” final season with a January 2020 episode that exposed his death.
In 2015 Fred Willard won a Daytime Emmy for a story arc as John Forrester on “The Bold and therefore the Beautiful”; he had previously been nominated in 1986 for outstanding service show host for “What’s Hot, What’s Not.”
The actor was long related to improvisational comedy, going back to his days at Chicago’s Second City within the 1960s and continuing together with his small role in Rob Reiner’s documentary-style “This Is lumbar puncture .” Willard was also a co-founder of the Ace shipping company improv troupe, which made numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show” within the 1960s and ’70s.
In 2015, “Spinal Tap” co-star Harry Shearer declared of Willard’s work on the film: “He’s from another galaxy; you only can’t fathom where these things come from. His energy is overpowering” — and therefore the Christopher Guest-directed comedic mockumentaries “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003), “For Your Consideration” (2006) and 2016’s “Mascots,” during which an excellent deal of improvisation was utilized. The Detroit press opined in 2014: “ ‘Best in Show,’ with Willard playing a color commentator at a prestigious dog competition, is probably the best-loved” during this string of cult hits. The NY Times said that to play the “blissfully ill-informed show tv announcer in ‘Best in Show,’” Willard “trotted out every inappropriate dog joke and announcing cliché he could muster, drawing rave reviews and reinvigorating his career.” The role “brought a cachet, buoyed by the YouTube and Nick in the dark reruns of his old ‘Fernwood Tonight’ appearances, unlike anything Mr. Willard experienced within the first 30 years of his career. He suddenly became cool.”
(Willard’s improv-related activities also included hosting the TV series “Trust Us together with your Life” in 2012 and appearing at the Detroit Improv Festival in 2014.)
The actor’s notable film roles also included Shelby Forthright, the hugely optimistic CEO of the Buy n Large Corporation, in Pixar’s much-beloved “Wall-E” (2008), who is shown only in videos recorded at about the time of the Axiom ’s initial launch; Ed Harken, the news director of KVWN, in 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”; Dr. Willoughby, the school of medicine dean who interviewed Kal Penn’s Kumar in “Harold & Kumar attend White Castle” (2004); and therefore the father of Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle Flaherty in 2003’s “American Wedding” (Roger Ebert said, “Rising to toast the union between his Irish family and therefore the Jewish family of his new in-laws, he brings real warmth and sincerity.
It really all began for Willard when he played Jerry Hubbard, dimwitted sidekick to Martin Mull’s chat show host Barth Gimble on the wickedly satirical, Norman Lear-created TV series “Fernwood Tonight” and “America 2-night” in 1977 and 1978. These shows were spinoffs from the seminal, Norman Lear-produced serial spoof “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Willard and Mull reteamed on the 1985 HBO mockumentary “The History of the White race in America,” then were reunited on a 1995 episode of “Roseanne” to play one among the primary gay couples on television, and Willard recurred on the show then.
He was the sole human actor — the bartender — on Sid and Marty Krofft’s “D.C.
Fred Willard recurred on “Everybody Loves Raymond” from 2003-05 as Hank MacDougall, the daddy of Monica Horan’s Amy MacDougall-Barone, who eventually becomes the wife of Brad Garrett’s Robert Barone.
He appeared in Christopher Guest’s HBO series “Family Tree” — an effort to adapt his documentary-style comedy for television — in 2013.
The comic actor made dozens of appearances in sketches on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and more recently was a frequent presence on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
In interviews, Willard didn’t appear to be someone with lingering regrets, but he admitted that he wished he hadn’t turned down the lead role of Ted Striker (eventually played by Robert Hays) within the hit comedy “Airplane!”
Frederick Charles Willard was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute and therefore the Virginia Military Institute. After a quick tour within the Army in 1962, Willard and friend Vic Greco formed a comedy act that earned them a 1964 appearance on “The Sullivan Show.” Willard auditioned successfully alongside Robert Klein for Chicago’s Second City, portraying a nightclub manager and his employee. during this period he also co-founded the Ace Trucking Company; the troupe appeared regularly on ABC variety series “This Is Tom Jones” in 1969.
Fred Willard and Second City colleagues including Klein and David Steinberg appeared Off-Broadway in “The Return of the Second City in ‘20,000 Frozen Grenadiers’ ” in 1966. Willard also appeared Off-Broadway in 1969 in Jules Feiffer’s hit comedy “Little Murders” (which was adapted into a film) and “Arf/The Great Airplane Snatch,” during which he appeared with Lily Tomlin, among others.
Fred Willard made his film debut within the 1967 exploitation film “Teenage Mother.”
The actor guested on “Get Smart” in 1968, “Love, American Style” in 1970 and “The Bob Newhart Show” in 1975, and he appeared within the feature comedies “Silver Streak,” starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in 1976 and “Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), starring Fonda and Segal , but it had been on “Fernwood Tonight” and “America 2-Night” that he created the genial, empty-headed and sometimes inappropriate persona with which he remained associated throughout his business life .
Fred Willard told the ny Times in 2008: “I wish to play the guy that has no self-awareness, quite the likable buffoon who will stick his foot in his mouth and say the incorrect thing.”
In 2015 he adapted this persona to be used during a series of commercials also starring Jeffrey Tambor for DirecTV during which Willard played the witless head of a cable company that merges with Tambor’s.
Fred Willard sold out the run of his nominally one-man show “Fred Willard: Alone at Last!” (which actually sported variety of other cast members) and led sketch comedy workshop the MoHo Group.
In 2006 Fred Willard starred Off-Broadway in “Elvis and Juliet,” an ingenious comedy written by Mary Willard, about the primary meeting of an engaged couple’s families, one among which may be a clan of Vegas “tribute artists.”
In 2014 Fred Willard appeared as Cap’n Andy during a semi-staged production of “Showboat” at Lincoln Center that also featured Vanessa Williams, Jane Alexander, and therefore the ny Philharmonic.
Willard’s survivors include Mulbarger, a son-in-law, and grandson.